Karen Gregory, City College
Review of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, edited by Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, and Benjamin J. Robertson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). $44.95.
The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media is an ambitious book and quite literally a “big book.” Just shy of six hundred pages, it attempts to create a “systematic and comprehensive” guide for both teachers and students. The editors of the Guide write, “we envision this book as an easy-to-consult reference work for digital media scholars or for scholars wishing to familiarize themselves with this fast-developing field,” and a quick glance at the table of contents will entice a reader with an interdisciplinary array of entries ranging from “Artificial Life,” “Flarf,” “Ludus and Paida,” and “Temporality of Digital Works” to “Twitter, Tumblr, and Microblogging.” As such, the Guide is at once a tour de force of concepts that charts an expansive digital terrain, as well as a practical reader that will be especially helpful for scholars and students approaching the field of digital media for the first time. As a sociologist whose primary interest is labor, I do not feel qualified to comment on whether or not the Guide realizes its promise of being a “comprehensive reference” work, or whether or not it has overlooked certain topics that media theorists, those working in the Digital Humanities, or those currently building and experimenting with new digital platforms might find essential. That said, I would like to see this book on the shelf of almost any scholar currently teaching and taking into consideration the ways in which digital media pervades our day-to-day lives and our social interactions, and undergirds our emerging economic and political realities.
While the courses I plan to teach in the fall will not be traditional media classes, the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media has become a valuable companion as I consider both the nature of the course material and possible course assignments. First and foremost, the Guide is highly readable and engaging, haven been written by contemporary scholars and experts in their respective fields with emphasis, it seems, on explanation and providing historical context. Indeed, much credit must be given to the individual authors who helped to compose the Guide; I was continually struck by the entries’ ability to synthesize, organize, clarify, and provide valuable “further reading” recommendations. Entries such as the “Characteristics of Digital Media,” written by David Golumbia, are blessedly straightforward, guiding the reader through explanations of nonlinearity, multimedia, hypertextuality, collaboration, portability, and preservation. Given that the nature of digital media can often feel overwhelming to a new scholar or student, entries such as his help demystify and clarify key concepts—concepts that could then be taken up in the classroom, explored in more detail, and debated. Other entries, such as “Politics and New Media,” written by Joss Hands; “Materiality,” written by Anna Munster; “Mediality,” written by Jan Noël Thon; “Collective Intelligence,” by John Duda; “Participatory Culture,” written by Melissa Brough; “Cyborg and Posthuman,” by Raine Koskimaa; and “Critical Theory,” written by David Golumbia, are useful reviews of broad topics and could be used as introductory texts for students. As such, the Guide would be helpful to scholars looking to ground a discussion of “the digital” in their classroom. In addition, entries such as these could be used to teach writing to students, asking them to use the guide not only as a reference or as introductory material for further exploration, but as a model for the organization of their writing and their use of citations.
In addition to considering the Guide as both reference material and model writing, I was also excited to think of entries such as “Mashup,” by Benjamin J. Robertson; “Remix,” by Aaron Angello; and “Randomness,” written by Marie-Laure Ryan as providing introductory groundwork or contextual framing for possible creative classroom assignments that would ask students to manipulate and play with media over the course of their research. While these entries historically situate their respective topics, they are also accessible entry points for both teachers and students to think about the role that various digital media may play in the very methodologies of writing, reading, and research. In addition, entries such as “Location-Based Narrative,” by Scott Ruston; “Digital Poetry,” by Leonardo Flores; and “Life History,” by Ruth Page, could actually be used to introduce digital methodology to students. For example, I often have students write a brief “labor history” of their family as a way to contextualize their own education, work history, and perceptions of mobility in the United States. This writing could be framed by reading entries such as Page’s and built into either a research project that encourages students to look the ways in which life-history writing, personal aspirations, and digital storytelling are employed online through social media. Or, this writing could become the basis for its own digital storytelling project. While the Guide will not necessarily help one fully develop these assignments, it is a valuable resource for imagining new teaching possibilities.
This may go without saying, but the strength of the Guide—that it amasses such an impressive and helpful collection of current entries—is also its shortcoming. As I read through the Guide, I couldn’t help but think that the book could be paired with a digital companion that would allow the book to stay up-to-date as the field of digital media continues to grow. The editors of the Guide are well aware of its role in the media ecology, however, and they understand that they are working in the age of Wikipedia. The editors offer the following reasons why such a physical guide is necessary, writing that because the book “targets a more scholarly audience, its entries are more narrowly focused on issues relevant to the arts, humanities, and cultural studies.” I will be curious to see how the book entries hold up over time and how we might revisit such a guide in ten, fifteen, or twenty years.
The Guide’s editors also suggest that authors in the book are more “responsible” than anonymous authors of Wikipedia entries. While this last point could be heavily contested (and most likely would be by Wikipedians), I would agree that this project has brought the right people together to write this book. However, it will be interesting to see if projects like “Digital Key Words” (http://orgs.utulsa.edu/dkw/) vie for the attention of the Guide’s readers. Furthermore, if a digital companion to the book existed, it would be exciting for that space make room for pedagogy, debate, and student work as the field of digital media continues to expand and directly inform the nature of scholarly work in classrooms. I could see assigning the production of more entries to students—actually fulfilling the unkept promise of Wikipedia, which is to make visible the conditions under which such a scholarly collection of knowledge is compiled, edited, curated, and kept current. Given that the Guide would like to be an invaluable resource to students, faculty, and researchers, a book format does begin to feel limited.
Finally, I was surprised to see that the book lacks an index. While the entries are cross-referenced, which is helpful, as I was reading I found myself turning to the back to look for words like “labor” or “subjectivity” or “affect” in order to see where and how my own interests could guide my reading. However, the Guide’s use of keywords would lend itself well to a digital version, which would render the book searchable and perhaps more easily navigable.
Overall, the Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media is an impressive undertaking and it will be well received by both newcomers to the field and more seasoned scholars. Like any good encyclopedia, it offers the reader an opportunity to get lost among its riches. Given that is a book and not a website or ebook, the text is also a unique and certain pleasure: take the book off the shelf, feel its weight in your hands, and then begin flipping through the pages to randomly encounter a new topic.
About the Author
Karen Gregory is a lecturer in sociology at the Center for Worker Education/Division of Interdisciplinary Studies at the City College of New York.